HP's CEO Meg Witman: Next Blame Santa?

Author J. Mike Smith is a executive, career, and leadership team coach, helping individuals, start-ups, teams and groups perform significantly better.

If the choice is to take a fall for something you didn’t do, or credit your predecessor who did the deed, even my advice would be to do the latter.

There is no glory in taking a hit you don’t deserve.

Anyone in a senior role, as I noted to a client this week, will get more than their fair share of pot shots at some point. Shooting galleries and clay pigeons come to mind.

But there’s a time span to how long it’s fair game, or even smart, to blame your predecessor.

While it’s probably OK for President Obama [Disclosure: I contributed money to the Obama campaign as well as volunteer time ] to credit George Bush for the economic (the Great Recession) and international affairs (2 major wars waged simultaneously) hole he inherited, it’s got a certain amount of time tied to it. Three years of credit (aka blame) is probably OK; at five years President Obama owns the issue, even with recalcitrant Republicans blocking his path.

CEOs never (should) get that much time; the enterprises they run are minnows in comparison to being the President of the USA.

HP CEO Meg Whitman took helm of the 350,000 employee firm – minus 27,000 after recent layoffs –  in September 2011. She has credited prior CEO Mark Hurd for running the company in silos that were dysfunctional and for underinvesting in new products and blamed former CEO Leo Apotheker and CTO Shane Robinson for a failed purchase of a company called Autonomy that has not delivered expected results. HP bought Autonomy in August 2011. Most recentlyWhitman’s blamed Autonomy CEO Mike Lynch for cooked books at Autonomy.

During the year plus that Whitman’s been a CEO the firm has underperformed, with a stock price that has gone from $24 a share to around $14 a share. The two year play, starting from the time Whitman joined the HP board, is a drop in the value of HP shares from $53 to $14 a share.

So is it fair for Whitman to blame the other guys?

Meg Whitman joined the HP Board of Directors in January 2011. In the time she has been on the HP board, the purchase of Autonomy was approved, and the board sacked CEO Apotheker and replaced him with Whitman. In short while she’s been on the receiving end of events before she took the stick, she also had oversight as a director of the company.

While passing the buck is fine and good when it’s deserved, Whitman is staring at the closing tunnel of how much further blame she can pass things off. Fortune Magazine in a piece titled How HP’s Meg Whitman is Passing Off the Buck notes that there are several holes in the case she’s trying to make. Even for a company described as “having lost its way” there’s a limit to the time a CEO has to improve things.

Cut to the chase?

It’s OK to credit your predecessor for the hole you find yourself in. But at some point, as Sharon Engle might suggest, it’s time to “man up” and take responsibility.

The cast of people to blame is getting mighty slim.

Who’s left? Santa?

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